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The Oostvaardersplassen and Ethics
"Especially when animals are used in rewilding projects, to serve as ecosystem engineers delivering a suite of ecosystem services, the open-endedness of such experiments means that the projects may not necessarily produce the desired outcome in the view of managers’. This, in turn, can impact upon ethical or animal welfare issues where the wildlife is culled, removed, relocated or otherwise interfered with (Jamieson, 2008; Von Essen & Allen, 2016), as demonstrated in the English beaver case.” Julia Rouet-Leduc 2017
I wanted to write a story about rewilding and its ethical aspects in the Oostvaardersplassen (OVP) as it often is characterized in scientific publications as a “rewilding project”. So what do you do? You start by looking up the definition of rewilding.
  1. Rewilding according to the website Rewilding Europe is making Europe "or parts of it" a wilder place. One of the key points in this rewilding programme is according to them "the comeback of a number of iconic and keystone wildlife species" like the bison, taurus (Heck cattle), ponies (Konik or other), elk, wolf, bear, etc.
  2. Mark Bekoff says in this article Why humanity must rewild? “Conservationist Caroline Fraser noted in her book "Rewilding the World," that rewilding could be defined by three words: Cores, Corridors and Carnivores. Dave Foreman, director of the Rewilding Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a true visionary, sees rewilding as a conservation strategy based on three premises: "(1) healthy ecosystems need large carnivores, (2) large carnivores need big, wild roadless areas, and (3) most roadless areas are small and thus need to be linked." Conservation biologists and others who write about rewilding or work on rewilding projects see it as a large-scale process involving projects of different sizes that go beyond carnivores, such as the ambitious, courageous and forward-looking Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, well known as the Y2Y project. Of course, rewilding goes beyond carnivores, as it must” says Mark Bekoff. “The core words associated with large-scale rewilding projects are connection and connectivity, the establishment of links among geographical areas so that animals can roam as freely as possible with few if any disruptions to their movements. For this to happen ecosystems must be connected so that their integrity and wholeness are maintained or reestablished.”
  3. “Whereas much wilderness management as it is currently practiced seeks to somehow contain or suppress natural processes, or managing the environment for the benefit of a single species, what rewilding proposes really is letting nature re-find its own balance – in many ways letting the land turn feral, so that nature itself can work out what is best for it. Rewilding is about making a whole wilderness ecosystem truly wild – self-sustaining, abundant and diverse (which just happen to coincide with the aims of permaculture design). It is about creating a future in which humans and nature are equal parts of a global ecosystem, rather than separate and often antagonistic elements.” 5 reasons for rewilding
  4. And last but not least : The IUCN International Union for Conservation of Nature describes different kinds of protected nature areas.
  • Ia Strict nature reserve: Strictly protected for biodiversity and also possibly geological/ geomorphological features, where human visitation, use and impacts are controlled and limited to ensure protection of the conservation values
  • Ib Wilderness area: Usually large unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character and influence, without permanent or significant human habitation, protected and managed to preserve their natural condition
  • II National park: Large natural or near-natural areas protecting large-scale ecological processes with characteristic species and ecosystems, which also have environmentally and culturally compatible spiritual, scientific, educational, recreational and visitor opportunities
  • III Natural monument or feature: Areas set aside to protect a specific natural monument, which can be a landform, sea mount, marine cavern, geological feature such as a cave, or a living feature such as an ancient grove
  • IV Habitat/species management area: Areas to protect particular species or habitats, where management reflects this priority. Many will need regular, active interventions to meet the needs of particular species or habitats, but this is not a requirement of the category
  • V Protected landscape or seascape: Where the interaction of people and nature over time has produced a distinct character with significant ecological, biological, cultural and scenic value: and where safeguarding the integrity of this interaction is vital to protecting and sustaining the area and its associated nature conservation and other values
  • VI Protected areas with sustainable use of natural resources: Areas which conserve ecosystems, together with associated cultural values and traditional natural resource management systems. Generally large, mainly in a natural condition, with a proportion under sustainable natural resource management and where low-level non-industrial natural resource use compatible with nature conservation is seen as one of the main aims
Why the OVP is NOT a rewilding project and its ethics
According to the above definition the OVP is not a rewilding project at all but a Habitat/species management area: an area to protect particular species or habitats, where management reflects this priority. The protected species in the OVP are birds and geese (Habitat 2000) and for maintenance and management of the area animals have been introduced : the large grazers (Konik horses, Heck cattle and red deer). They are just tools. The animals can not roam as freely as possible, there are no corridors with other areas, and the ecological system is not complete.
The Konik horses and the Heck cattle are originally domesticated animals, they do not descend from wild animals, and they are forced to lead a wild existence/forced to de-domesticate. So in a way the OVP is partly a de-domestication project. Over the years the horses and cattle unfortunately have been characterized as wild animals, a part of the ecological system, which gives ecologists a reason not to want to touch them, to care for them, to keep them wild by all means and to let them reproduce to be culled in the end.
It hardly seems ethical to have introduced these animals knowing they are going to be shot or hunted in the end. As Julia Rouet-Leduc describes in her thesis The compromises of rewilding “rewilding” holds a paradox in its definition. “While it promotes a vision of self-managed nature where wildlife thrives and creates and delivers new ecosystem services, the actual practice of “rewilding” (the introduction of species) still appears as an anthropocentric concept, having human parameters for visions as well as for practical management decisions (Swales, 2014).” The grazers in the OVP and the beavers in Gelderse Poort and the Limburgse Maasdal are perfect exemples. Both are now being culled: the beavers introduced by Ark in 1994 colonized the areas and are now considered as pests, the grazers in the OVP are reproducing too much so that numbers get too high for the availability of food, especially in winter.
The minimal conditions and the reduced living space change their natural behavior. As the area is so small for the number of animals, they live on top of each other even though they naturally would be living in small groups. Especially red deer, a typical forest animal, that live in small family groups and that are normally very shy, are forced to live on a empty plain in very large numbers which compromises their welfare. The fighting of the stallions is another problem of welfare. As there are too many in relation to the number of mares there is a lot of competition and the fights cause many injuries. The (pregnant) mares and the calves do not have a moment of peace and can get separated. Many of the horses have hoof and teeth problems. Inbreeding takes place which can lead to malformations/weaker animals. According to this study of ninety six Konik horses kept in 6 herds located across Poland "Among individual horses, the inbreeding coefficient ranged from 5.25% to 22.41% (for ROH >1 Mb)." which is too high.
What really is lacking and has been lacking in the management of the OVP until now is an interest in the individual animals concerned. No veterinary care is given at all neither to the domesticated animals, the horses and the cattle nor to the wild animals. The only care for the large grazers is that of being able to be culled or euthanized if suffering gets too much. We think that that should change in the future as we now know that all animals, not only our companion animals and farm animals but also de-domesticated and wild animals have cognitive and emotional lives (consciousness and sentience) and that they can suffer. Marc Bekoff couldn’t say it better : "Compassionate conservation requires that humans must protect animals as individuals — they are not merely objects or metrics who can be traded off for the good of populations, species or biodiversity. Such a paradigm shift in our approach to other animals is vital because of what we now know about the cognitive and emotional capacities of other animals and their ability to suffer." and “When I think about what can be done to help others, a warm feeling engulfs me and I'm sure it's part of that feeling of being rewilded. To want to help others in need is natural, so that glow is to be expected.” and “Rewilding is an attitude. It's also a guide for action. As a social movement, it needs to be proactive, positive, persistent, patient, peaceful, practical, powerful and passionate — which I call the eight Ps of rewilding.” Why humanity must rewild?
“The human exploitation of other animals is generally so severe and unrelenting that a precautionary principle should be invoked: when the satisfaction of human preferences conflicts with the welfare of non-human animals and it is not clear how to calculate the trade-offs, we should give the non-human animals the benefit of the doubt. This consideration also supports the idea that when rewilding and reintroduction programmes are implemented, whether rightly or wrongly, animal welfare considerations should be at the centre of concern. It is bad enough to implement an unjustifiable programme; the least we can do is demand that it is done in the least harmful way....” Dale Jamieson in “The rights of animals and the demands of nature”
A clear message to be spread to everyone and every country that aspires the launch of new projects whether they are of “rewilding”, conservation, nature development, protection of biodiversity etc... You can read more about compassionate conservation on this site Center for compassionate conservation

Other questions to be asked and to be studied in a larger context: 

Why do we want to Rewild Europe? In this article 5 reasons are mentioned why we should rewild? The main reasons are for increasing biodiversity, for Self-Sustaining Systems, for the protection of certain species from extinction,  and for human benefits (eco-tourism/to rewild ourselves and for commercial reasons as employment/exploitation) and rewilding for aesthetics, the beauty and enchantment it brings to the world.
In most cases the economic aspects are just as important as the ecological/biological aspects. 

Rewilding could be included in a global sustainable development agenda as a way to solve environmental issues as biodiversity extinctions, impoverishment of soils because of intensive agriculture, or as a tool for climate mitigation through carbon capture (Pereira & Navarro, 2015). The compromises of rewilding 

The ethics of releasing domesticated animals in the wild 

There is proof that Konik horses are not real descendants of the wild horse.

Ethical aspects of creating/maintaining biodiversity 

Setting aside half the Earth for ‘rewilding’: the ethical dimension

In this view, we care about nature and biodiversity only because we care about ourselves. Nature is useful for us in the sense of resources and ecological services, but it has no value in and of itself. In ethics talk, people have intrinsic value while nature’s only value is what it can do for people – extrinsic value.

Ethical aspects of culling

In some cases human perception of how wilderness looks can be different from the result of rewilding (Hall, 2014). Especially when animals are used in rewilding projects, to serve as ecosystem engineers delivering a suite of ecosystem services, the open-endedness of such experiments means that the projects may not necessarily produce the desired outcome in the view of managers’. This, in turn, can impact upon ethical or animal welfare issues where the wildlife is culled, removed, relocated or otherwise interfered with (Jamieson, 2008; Von Essen & Allen, 2016), as demonstrated in the English beaver case.

Ethical aspects of de-extinction

It is important to note that other interpretations exist in rewilding, indeed, some rewilding projects emphasize mainly passive management and self-management of nature without any or limited human intervention, when others focus on bringing back extinct species through sophisticated genetic reverse-engineering, like back-breeding, and de-extinction technologies in laboratories. These often try to approximate the Pleistocene baseline. These rewilding ideas have been popularised amongst others by Ted Talks (TedxDeExtinction, 2013; Ted Ed, 2014), and these extincted animals are usually megafauna. They are charismatic and iconic animals like the wooly mammuth. These kinds of projects have popularized the idea of rewilding for the mainstream public but have also made it controversial since it links rewilding with controversial practices of cloning for example. In rewilding exotic or extinct megafauna, public enthusiasm is particularly important since potential revived species are highly charismatic animals that are linked to our imagination of prehistoric times and our willingness to fund, endorse or otherwise visit such sites/projects. While the argument for de-extinction are several, like for restoring ecosystems, one of the biggest arguments is the wonder it creates, “The last benefit might be called “wonder,” or, more colloquially “coolness.” This may be the biggest attraction, and possibly the biggest benefit, of de-extinction. It would surely be very cool to see a living wooly mammoth.” (Sherkow & Greely, 2013, p. 33) The compromises of rewilding 

We are to embark on this de-extinction journey, an act some might label playing God, we need to establish the rules of the game. I want to suggest that the well-established standards for species reintroduction projects provide a solid foundation on which de-extinction can be built.

Critics of de-extinction in the popular science media have quickly pointed out drawbacks. From an ethical perspective, they have pointed to potential violations of animal welfare standards, the potential drain on resources that could be used in the conservation of still-existing species, and the implication that species destruction might be seen as permissible if it is reversible. 

The ecological objections have included the lack of ecosystems in which the re-created creatures could live, the potential invasiveness of the species in the ecosystem, and the potential for new disease vectors. Exploration of de-extinction's ethical dilemmas will require serious scientific and public debate, including a significant contribution from humanities researchers, including philosophers and historians, who have the appropriate theoretical background for conceptualizing what is at stake. 

Ethical aspects of breeding wild animals / inbreeding

Horses died in Bulgaria

Educating Ethics and animals 

Giving the wrong exemple ... 

Resistance from the local population

Is it responsible to continue a project that creates so much resistance amungst a huge part of the population in the Netherlands and even abroad?

Ethics in wild life parks

Compassionate conservation

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